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Berwyn diversity committee disappointed about 'heavy pushback' from police on policy recommendations

Berwyn City Hall
Berwyn City Hall

BERWYN – Two of the Berwyn Diversity Commission's strongest recommendations designed to prevent racial profiling and other forms of bias have been received with "heavy pushback," from the Berwyn Police Department, the committee's chairwoman reported in a recent meeting.

The Diversity Commission, formed in 2019 in response to allegations of racial profiling by Berwyn police, reported no evidence of profiling at a Dec. 23 city council committee meeting but at the same time outlined the 14 recommendations.

The commission met with Berwyn police in early March to discuss the recommendations. Since that time, the killing of Black man George Floyd in May in Minneapolis and subsequent protests "has made the commission's work more pressing than ever," said Andrea Munday, chairwoman of the commission.

Two of the strongest recommendations were for implicit bias training every three years, and an online system of complaint for police officer misconduct.

"I hope that we made it clear that just because we didn't find evidence of systemic racism or a racial profiling issue within the Berwyn Police Department didn't mean that there was no urgency in making improvements," Munday said. "I think we should not be so naive to think that what happened in Minneapolis couldn't happen here. Personally, I felt that most of the recommendations were met with a bit of defensiveness."

The recommendation regarding training was that every three years police officers be trained in person with a specialist about implicit bias. According to Munday, currently Berwyn police do annual training that is an online training module, with implicit bias a piece but not the focus.

Munday said the commission felt that "person-to-person interaction was important," and both her and Alderwoman Alicia Ruiz were disappointed at the response from police.

"I still feel strongly about having in-person training, direct one-on-one in a classroom every three years," Ruiz said. "To ask for that is not asking a lot."

The commission also sought in its recommendations to make reporting a police officer for misconduct more accessible by putting a form on the Berwyn police website.

Currently, the process for reporting an officer must start by going into the police department and signing a sworn affidavit, what Munday and Ruiz both deemed intimidating.

"To me that sounds like sending the sheep into the lions' den," Ruiz said. "You have to be a very strong-willed person to complain about someone while in their house."

Munday said that the commission previously asked for any complaints against any officer that included the words "profiling," or "racism," and were told Berwyn police only had one such case in 2018.

"We thought oh that's great," Munday said, "but looking into the process it's no wonder. We really wanted to make that first step more accessible. That was also met with pushback. They said someone can call us to start a conversation, if we put something online we'll get a bunch of complainers."

Munday did note the action on one recommendation, the addition of two members to the city's police and fire commission, one of them a Black woman, to a now five-person group.

"We felt when hiring and screening, three people wasn't enough," Munday said. "We asked them to add one more, and we asked them to add a Black person. We were really happy to see that."

Munday said that the next steps the committee is taking is to ask the police to provide a written response to the recommendations and why they can or cannot accommodate them, and if they are when they will happen.

At the meeting a concern was raised by Berwyn resident Benjamin Henning about police actions on June 1 at the time curfews were implemented in response to looting and rioting alongside peaceful protests. Henning alleged that Berwyn police allowed "vigilantes" armed with "bats, pipes and boards, at least one with nails through it," to break curfew "under the guise of protecting the neighborhood."

"I was surprised to see the Berwyn police welcome these vigilantes, even so far as posing for pictures with them. This action by the police is troubling to me," Henning wrote. "Whether intended or not, there was a message sent to the Black community. This was unfortunate and acceptable."

Several committee members shared concerns.

"I represent the Black families in my community and I would be disappointed to know if any police officer in Berwyn was supporting that," said the Rev. Doris Green, a member of the Diversity Commission. "I'm very disappointed and I would like to hear what the police department's response would be. It should be brought to someone's attention. It's very disturbing to Black families, it's horrible to see that."

Ruiz noting that July marked a year since the commission was created, said that she was stepping away and no longer attending the meetings.

Ruiz, who picked the six members of the panel, said that her role was always to be a council liaison.

"Really, all I wanted to do is get you off the ground," Ruiz said. "It's time for me to step aside and and let this commission be what we all shared what we wanted it to be – a committee of residents, for the residents."

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